This 45-60 minute lesson on trade in the ancient world is designed as part of a larger unit plan focused on introducing civilization as a historical concept. While this civilization unit plan take Sumer as the exemplar, this lesson could easily be adapted for other historical periods or early civilizations. The intended audience is sixth grade students at an American public school. This lesson assumes that students are already familiar with how agriculture allowed individuals to produce a food surplus and how this allowed some individuals to specialize in something else. If you have not addresses this, I suggest that your start by teaching a mini-lesson around this and how that makes trade a necessity.
Goals: Students will demonstrate deeper understanding of trade and be able to contrast how individuals might trade goods at a market to meet certain needs verses how trade networks operated between civilizations in the ancient world. This is a comparing activity from the comprehension level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students will have little choice in this activity beyond the illusion of deciding which items to trade and with whom.
Process: For my 24-32 student classrooms I would recommend 8 types of goods, 5 bundles of each good , and 10 goods per bundle (all one type of good). With 50 of each good to go around it ought to be is sufficiently challenging for all students to trade to obtain at least 1 of each of the 8 goods. As far as trade goods, colored construction paper with the labels gold (Orange), food/grain (yellow), spices (black), wood (brown), cotton (white), wool (gray), pottery (red), and precious stones (blue) make viable stand-ins. Additional, trade goods might include olive oil, copper, tin, and glass.
Students will each receive one bundle of goods and instructions that they should trade with as many people as necessary to obtain at least one of every good. They may trade goods with someone even if the good that they are trading is not the type that they started with. Playing music during trading and turning it off for discussion and instruction can be helpful.
You can repeat this simulation a couple of times with the instructions above, asking them at the end of each simulation what they observed. During the discussion, collect and sort the items back into batches. If necessary, you can tell them some of your own observations. In particular, you might point out the emergence of centers of trade in specific locations in the room (usually around patches of open floor space), patterns where some students just trade one of what they have for one of what they need, while others might trade all of their excess items for two or more of something in hopes that they could make a better trade later, and perceptions about the relative value of different items.
One key line of inquiry that should be pursued that they are unlikely to develop on their own is, “do you know who had all the goods in your collection during this round of exchange? Do you know where all the goods you had ended up?” “Where did all the wool come from? Who did it start with? What about the pottery?” They will likely have a good idea about who they traded for what.
For this next round you can throw in the wrinkle that they can only trade from their desks and cluster the goods together. Explain that because most people didn’t travel a great distance to trade their goods. Most people trade with their neighbors who would trade with their neighbors. These long chains of trading linked civilizations into “trade networks.”
Some people will be able to connect with 8 others from their desks, but many others will not be able to connect to that many and even those with eight partners may find it difficult to reach most of the goods.
At the end of this round of trading, I will ask them observations. They should notice that they had to chain their goods from group to group and that they have much more trouble telling you where any one good came from.
I like to ask students to follow-up this sort of activity with a “process” as homework. I request a paragraph (at least 5 sentences) about what we did and what they learned about trade at a market and as part of a trade network.
If your class if more comfortable with specific prompts you can use:
What did you learn about trade today that was different than what you had previously thought about the topic? Was there anything that you thought was particularly challenging in this activity? What was different about trading when you could walk around and when you had to stay seated?